Slang In Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Part I)
(This is part one of a two-part article. The second installment will appear in the November issue.)
It is not unusual for movies to use accents and dialects to create mood and a sense of location. Whether it is Meryl Streep adopting a Polish accent in Sophie’s Choice, Joe Pesci playing the out of towner with a New York accent in My Cousin Vinnie, or the entire cast of the Coen brothers’ Fargo setting the location in rural Minnesota, the use of dialect in entertainment is well established. The use of dialect in television, however, is rarer. Sure there is the occasional character from New York who is readily identifiable by his accent and use of youse guys, but other uses are of dialect relatively rare. One show, however, that makes good use of dialect, but not always the dialect of a particular place, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hereafter BtVS) is a popular American television series broadcast in the United States on the WB (1997-2001) and UPN (2001+) networks. The series started in the spring of 1997 and is based on a rather unmemorable 1992 movie of the same title. The show concerns the adventures of Buffy Summers, a Southern California teenager who has been chosen by mysterious and unnamed powers to be the “Slayer.” The Slayer is a girl with preternatural strength and abilities called to rid the world of vampires and other demons. Buffy and her friends fight all manner of evil creatures in the fictional Southern California town of Sunnydale, under the guidance of Giles, an English librarian and Buffy’s “watcher.”
BtVS is a blend of genres, combining horror, martial arts, comedy, morality play, teen drama, and romance. It is sophisticated and eclectic, mixing slapstick with jokes about Sophocles’s Oedipus The King and questions about a soul’s ability to be redeemed with well choreographed and intense martial arts sequences. The premise is fantastic, but the characters are realistic. The acting is of high quality and the writing is tight and witty. It is one of the best shows currently on network television.
The show is also inventive, pushing the envelope of creativity. This past season featured a musical episode where a dancing demon came to Sunnydale, forcing the characters to sing their darkest secrets to one another. Hush, perhaps the best episode of the series, features 28 minutes without dialogue. Another episode that dealt with the death of a major character had no musical soundtrack, underscoring the characters’ grief with eerie silence.
But the most consistently creative element of the show is its use of language. The series is interesting linguistically for several reasons. One is its heavy reliance on slang to set the mood and establish the characters. As series creator Joss Whedon describes the students of Sunnydale High School in the script of the first episode, “They could be from anywhere in America, but for the extremity of their dress and the esoteric mania of their slang. This is definitely So. Cal.”
The characters are also self-aware of their language. Like many of the readers of this newsletter, Buffy is at times puzzled by etymology. At one point she comments, “they had tools, torches, the whole nine yards...What does that mean? The whole nine yards...nine yards of what? Now that’s gonna bug me all day.” When Buffy’s friend Willow is accused of being drunk, she defends herself by changing the subject to linguistics, “Drunk is a pretty strong word. Kind of an Anglo-Saxon word. Guttural. ‘Drunk.’” In another episode, Willow also muses over the proper past tense form of to slay, wondering if it is slayed or slew. Giles assures her that both are correct.
Another point of linguistic interest is that the writers attempt, with varying degrees of success, to incorporate realistic accents and regional usages to mimic the speech patterns found in various places in the US and the British Isles. This effort has not been lost on the fans of the show, who have dubbed the language of the show Slayerspeak.
Slayerspeak v. Real Teenspeak
Slayerspeak, however, is not a completely realistic depiction of how California teens talk. Sure it uses some aspects of actual teen slang, but Whedon and the writers do not deliberately attempt to be faithful to California teen-speak. They did in one scene in the first episode:
APHRODESIA [speaking to AURA]: The new kid? She seems kind of weird to me. And what kind of name is Buffy?
GIRL [as she passes by]: Hey, Aphrodesia.
AURA: Well, the chatter in the caf is that she got kicked out and that’s why her mom had to get a new job.
AURA: Pos. She was starting fights.
APHRODESIA (opening her locker): Negly!
AURA (opening hers): Well, I heard it from Blue, and she saw the transcripts— (Something flies out of the locker at her! She screams as the dead body of the boy from the opening [scene] collapses on her, eyes horribly wide.)
Whedon says they toned down the “wacky California-speak” after the first episode because the audience didn’t understand or respond to it. Now the characters still speak oddly, but Whedon says it is “based on the way I and the writers speak rather than anything we think teenagers might want to say.”
Instead Slayerspeak is made of several elements:
• Actual slang terms;
• BtVS-specific jargon;
• Nonce coinages that fall into several distinct derivational pattern;
• Coinages based on references to popular culture; and
• Speech patterns, catchwords, and phrases particular to an individual character.
Actual Slang Terms
Unsurprisingly, the most common slang term in BtVS is cool. It’s used both as an adjective denoting hip or desirable and as an interjection denoting approval. The opposite of cool is lame and those who aren’t cool are given a variety of common slang names, such as nerd, geek, and dork.
Another word that gets multiple uses is extreme. Gym class is cancelled one day due to an extreme dead guy in the locker. A teacher has an extreme toupee. And the adjective is also used to describe a great summer vacation.
Among nouns, thing gets wide use. It has three primary senses. Most commonly it is used as a generic term for an object or abstraction. Buffy refers to the homework thing or the prophecy thing. Often the insertion of the word is completely superfluous. Buffy’s friend Willow asks the vampire Angel, “the reflection thing, that you don’t have, Angel, how do you shave?”
A thing is also used generically as an excuse to depart. Buffy’s friend Xander, who harbors a secret crush on Buffy that is never to be fulfilled, asks Willow to leave so he can ask Buffy out on a date by saying, “Willow, don’t you have a thing?” To which Willow replies, “A thing? The thing! That I have! Which is a thing. I have to go to it. See you later!”
Thing is also used specifically to refer to a crush or emotional feelings for another. Buffy’s advice to Giles on asking a woman out is, “just say, ‘Hey, I got a thing, you’re maybe feeling a thing, and there could be a thing.’” And Willow comments on Xander’s unrequited love for Buffy, “cause you kinda got a thing there and she kinda has a thing...elsewhere.”
The slang verb that gets the most use is to hang, meaning to keep company. Buffy is always hanging with the creepy librarian in that creepy library. Secondary meanings include to wait or to loiter. Buffy wonders why vampires are hanging at the park. A less frequent variant is hang out.
Another frequently used verb is to deal, meaning to cope with. Buffy comments, “and that shirt...Deal with that outfit for a moment” and “it’s just, I have so much to deal with...” Deal is also used as a noun, meaning situation, as in What’s her deal?
But perhaps the slang term most associated with BtVS is to wig, meaning to get upset and panicky. According to Buffy, parents tend to wig if their child is not a “picture perfect carbon copy of themselves.” The adjectival form is wiggy.
The word can also be used as a noun. Buffy says that ventriloquists’ dummies give her the wig. A second noun form is wiggins, meaning a creepy or scary feeling. Buffy says, “that place kind of gives me a wiggins.” And her friend Xander describes a creepy situation as a fair wiggins.
Other actual slang terms that are used include: to yak (vomit), come with, my bad, to bail (to leave and on one occasion is used as a noun meaning a rescue, thanks for the bail), to ditch (to leave, abandon), wuss, and of course dude (although this last one is most often by minor characters).
Slayerspeak is not limited to particular terms. It also includes particular patterns of speech. One of its characteristics is the use of negative constructions. The adverb not is frequently used to negate a statement. Instead of saying it is good, Xander opines that Buffy’s timing really doesn’t suck and he sarcastically describes himself as very not pathetic. The local nightclub is not happening.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll
In general, sex is a rich topic for slang terms and BtVS is no exception. In the first few seasons, however, when the characters are still in high school, sex is largely limited to smoochies. Boyfriends are cuddle-monkeys and romantic situations are cuddlesome. When a witch casts a love spell, she invokes the great roofie spirit. When the characters graduate on to college, sex becomes more of a staple of the show, but while the characters discuss sex frequently, many of the standard slang terms for sex remain rare—presumably because of the network censors.
Oddly, because censors pass judgment on the scripts, not the filmed version, it may be easier to show characters having sex than to have them talk about it. In a Halloween episode, Willow dresses as a streetwalker, but the script refers to her dressing as a total rocker babe.
Of all the characters, only two regularly use slang terms when speaking about sex. Spike, the English vampire, talks about shagging and taking a poke. The other one is Faith, another Slayer, who tends to refer to sex with a gutteral unh! (She also uses unh! in reference to killing vampires—the relationship between combat and sex is a recurring theme in the series.) Faith also refers to it as doing the horizontal two-step and to late-night encounters in the smootch spot as kicking the old gearshift. Of all the characters, Faith alone uses screw to mean engage in sexual intercourse. (Many of the characters use the phrases screwed up (messed up) and we’re screwed (in trouble).) Faith avoids long-term relationships, preferring to get some and get gone. She refers to her lovers as boy-toys and sex can be either with kinks or vanilla. And when Willow comes out of the closet, Faith rather uncharitably notes that Willow is not driving stick anymore.
A few other characters use the occasional sexual slang terms, such as hottie, butch, horny, randy, mack, or boink. A good-looking woman is matressable and, if the guy is lucky, also a bunny in the sack (with Viking in the sack being the male equivalent).
On the broader subject of sexuality, BtVS uses a few slang or nonce terms. To be male is to be in guy-ville, and when Willow needs help understanding her boyfriend she turns to Xander, who is a translator from the Y-side.
Drugs, another rich source of slang in the real world, get short shrift on BtVS. None of the characters are drug users and slang terms for drugs are utterly absent. Alcohol gets a few hits, but again not many as none of the characters are drinkers. Buffy refers to drinking alone in one’s home as Lost Weekending. Cold beer is frosty nectar. But that is about the extent of it.
Popular music also gets relatively few script references. The show regularly features up-and-coming Southern Californian bands that play in local Sunnydale hangouts, but music isn’t a big deal in the scripts. And when it is mentioned, usually it’s references to bands from the 70s and 80s (probably because the writers are in their 30s and 40s and that’s their frame of reference). Hence, Buffy refers to a gathering of vampires as a scare-a-palooza, a reference to the Lalapalooza rock concert. She calls a vampire wearing out-of-date clothes DeBarge, referencing an ‘80s rock band remembered more for their bizarre costumes than their music. And Willow refers to herself as a groupie when she starts dating a musician.
One episode features a nice display of music jargon that excludes a non-musician. Willow finds her musician boyfriend and an attractive female singer in conversation about amplifiers. They are tossing about jargon terms such as Hound Dog and Redbone (brand names of amplifiers). Willow, to her embarrassment, misinterprets the conversation, mistakenly thinking they are discussing Elvis songs.
One would expect that a television series devoted to the occult and heavily reliant on slang to set the tone and mood would develop jargon terms specific to the series. While there are such terms, they are surprisingly few.
Among the terms limited to the series are those relating to vampires and other monsters. We have the clipped vamp for vampire and sire, denoting a vampire that creates another from one of his victims (not everyone bitten in the Buffyverse becomes a vampire, most just die). A werewolf wolfs out or is wolfy at the sight of a full moon. And the slang verb to suck is frequently used as a double entendre for something bad as well as a vampire attack. Buffy tells a vampire to suck on another town or refers to them having a suckfest.
Other terms include those that refer specifically to Buffy and her demon-hunting friends. They refer to themselves as the Scooby Gang, a pop culture reference to the 70s cartoon series Scooby Doo that is about ghost-hunting teenagers. A particularly nasty monster is a big bad, and the vampire Spike likes to refer to himself as the Big Bad.
So while BtVS doesn’t exactly mirror Southern California teen slang, it does make good use of elements of that slang in setting the mood and establishing the characters. The real linguistic joy of BtVS, however, is how the writers use a few derivational rules and patterns to create a panoply of unique slang terms and phrases. Next month, in part two of the article, we will examine how Joss Whedon and company go about this.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton